Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 53

Several articles appearing in quick succession in the French press suggest a possible understanding with Russia to block Georgian and Ukrainian Membership Action Plans (MAPs) at the upcoming NATO summit. This idea emerges at its clearest in Le Monde of March 12 (straight news-and-analysis article by Marie Jego, a prominent commentator on the post-Soviet area) and in Liberation of March 13 (advocacy article by Bernard Guetta, a long-time Moscow-based correspondent).

The sudden emergence of this idea in influential French newspapers might be traceable to some government officials (the Quai d’Orsay and the National Security Council are both resistant to the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs), or it could equally originate with Russian interlocutors airing trial balloons through the press, ahead of the alliance’s April 2-4 Bucharest summit.

The basic idea is to refuse MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO summit and then negotiate with Russia about creating a vast neutral zone that would include Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. In return, Russia would presumably “help” resolve the frozen conflicts, pledge to respect all three countries’ territorial integrity, and cooperate with the West on some other security issues (Le Monde, March 12).

Ironically, a paradigm for such trade-offs is seen in Moldova. That country is not a MAP candidate for NATO and goes out of its way to profess a “permanent” neutrality. This is one of the key Russian preconditions to allowing reunification of Transnistria with the rest of Moldova and withdrawing Russian troops. Specifically, Russia wants a Moldovan commitment to not join NATO. It also wants some form of international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality by agreement between Russia and the West.

In any rational calculation, Moldova’s geostrategic location holds only minimal interest for Russia. However, Russian policy with its recent fixation on “precedents” may well be seeking to extrapolate a solution of that type from Moldova to Ukraine and Georgia. These, unlike Moldova, are Russia’s neighbors as well as membership aspirants to NATO. Apparently, Russia seeks to generate some international discussion about Georgian and Ukrainian neutrality, as a holding action against the MAPs in the run-up to the NATO summit.

Moscow seems to hint at some trade-offs that could, through MAP denial, lead afterward to Georgian and Ukrainian neutrality. “This would be the road of Finlandization of these countries,” as part of a “continental-wide agreement for stabilization and cooperation” between the West and Russia (Liberation, March 13). At a major conference in Brussels on March 14-16 to exchange views on the upcoming NATO summit, some Russian officials speaking on Chatham House rules similarly suggested Finlandization. Such suggestions seem to ignore the choice of the elected Georgian and Ukrainian governments, let alone the differences between the present situation of these countries and the past situation of Finland when the Soviet Union imposed that type of neutrality.

Russia would want to stop the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs with the hands of a few NATO countries, thereby achieving a collateral gain in dividing NATO. Meanwhile, Moscow’s feelers to that end are being accompanied by threats to Georgia and Ukraine. The Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has repeatedly warned in recent days that Georgia would “lose” Abkhazia and South Ossetia if it receives a MAP (Itar-Tass, Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, March 10, 11). Russian officials then voiced similar warnings during the Brussels conference, asking aloud where Georgia’s borders would run if NATO approves a MAP for the country. Such warnings — as well as President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to target missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO (see EDM, February 14) seek not only to intimidate the two countries but also to test the strength and credibility of NATO itself.

On March 13-14 in Brussels, Presidents Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia attended a European Union summit as guests. They each sought to discuss MAP informally on the sidelines with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had in recent days emerged as the leading Western opponent of the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs (see EDM, March 13). Merkel refused to meet with either of them in Brussels or at any time before the NATO summit.

Some allied officials involved with the MAPs believe that Merkel must have decided to go public as categorically as she did, opposing the two MAPs, in order to set a marker against U.S. President George W. Bush ahead of the NATO summit. Bush is expected to endorse the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs publicly during his meetings with Saakashvili in Washington on March 19 and Yushchenko in Kyiv on March 31-April 1. Thus, allied officials see Merkel’s move as intended to preempt — and, with France, counterbalance — Bush’s move.

On March 17, Kyiv announced that Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had just written to Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in quest of support for a Ukrainian MAP (UNIAN, March 17). Meanwhile, French National Security Council and Quai d’Orsay officials are said to oppose Saakashvili’s quest for a meeting with Sarkozy ahead of the NATO summit.

For political significance, these MAP-related developments transcend the immediate issue at hand. Blocking the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs can become a precedent-setting case for a few NATO countries to block allied decisions on other issues in the future, in the perceived interest of relations with Russia. Motivations for such action could variously stem from ambitious and unrealistic “continental” security agendas, economic and energy interests with Russia, or enlargement fatigue seeping from the European Union into NATO.

A bedrock NATO principle rules out any veto by an outside country — meaning basically Russia — on allied decisions. That principle could be breached for the first time in the alliance’s history, if Berlin and Paris lead an action to block the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs at the Bucharest summit in deference to Russia’s opposition.